Friday, November 11, 2005

Back Story: Too Much, Too Soon?

By Cynthia VanRooy

Ever have the experience of meeting someone at a party and within
minutes you’ve heard about their three miscarriages, the ex-husband they
left because of his drinking, the brother who’s in prison, but it’s not
his fault, his friends got him into trouble, and the uncle who’s
suspected of using drugs? What’s your reaction? Do you want to know
this person
better, pursue this new relationship further? Hardly! You can’t wait
get away from this stranger you already know too much about.

This is the most common mistake new romance writers make—subjecting
their reader to the same kind of too-much-too-soon information dump. It’s
understandable. We want the reader to love our heroes and heroines as
much as we do, to understand why they do what they do. Our mistake is in
wanting the reader to understand before we’ve given them a reason to

If the stranger were your best friend instead, that would change your
reaction considerably to the details they relayed. This holds true for
your fictional characters, too. The reader needs to become emotionally
involved with them, become caught up in the present moment of the
characters’ lives before they can be interested in anything that happened
before the story started.

That’s what backstory is—the events that happened prior to page one
that led up to the story. The most dangerous thing about backstory is that
it’s boring. Nothing is happening to engage the reader. The characters
aren’t acting. You’re just relaying information about them in the most
uninteresting way possible—telling.

Rather than start your novel with backstory, start with the culminating
action that is the result of that backstory. Give the reader only as
much information as they need to follow that action without becoming
confused. Trust the reader. They’re bright, they’ll get it. Honest. Need an
example? Story opens . . .

A woman is driving at night. The only things keeping her weary, hurting
body awake are tension and adrenaline. She has to put as much distance
between herself and Richard as she can, but she knows she needs to stop
and rest soon before she becomes a menace to anyone else on the road.
She takes the next exit off the freeway and finds herself in a small,
seedy-looking town, the stores all closed and the streets mostly
deserted. She spots a motel up ahead. She pulls her car into the parking spot
in front of the orange neon lights proclaiming “office.”
With an effort she releases the steering wheel, only to discover her
hands are shaking. She takes a couple of deep breaths trying to get
herself under control, then grabs her purse and opens the car door.
In the office the clerk hands her a pen and shoves the register toward
her. She hesitates and has a moment of panic as she tries to decide
whether to use her own name. No, better not. She signs her first grade
teacher’s name, the only one she can think of. The clerk stares at her
left eye and she can feel it’s swollen. She wonders if it has begun to
turn black. The clerk hands her the room key and she hurries to escape his
Once in her room she bolts the door and puts on the chain before
turning on the light and dropping her bag. She’s so tired she wants to
collapse, but knows she’ll sleep better after a warm shower to ease the
aches. As she peels off her clothes she notes in the mirror the bruises
blooming on her ribs and hip. And yes, her eye has turned black.
After a shower that does little to relieve the pain, she is making her
way from the bathroom when the phone rings. She freezes, clutching the
towel tightly around her, her hands fisted in the terrycloth. Oh, God,
he’s found her already. The phone continues to peal insistently and she
reaches out a trembling hand and lifts the receiver.

Nothing confusing here, you understand what’s happening, The passage
raised some questions, but that’s a good thing. That’s how you draw the
reader in. Who is Richard? Why is she running away from him? What will
happen if he finds her? Is he the one who hurt her?

To get hooked into this character and this story you didn’t need to
know the woman ran away at sixteen to escape her abusive home life, that
she lived on the streets for two years, that she got her act together
and worked her way through college, that Richard is a musician she met in
a coffee house where she worked, that she fell in love with him because
of his protectiveness, that the protectiveness revealed itself shortly
as control, and that it turned into the same kind of abusive behavior
she used to get from her father that she had promised herself never to
take again. Whew.

Ideally, that backstory would be fed to the reader a little at a time,
as they needed it. One of the best ways to impart backstory is in
dialog, where realistically the hero/heroine might reveal it to the other.
Dialog, with its action and white space on the page, is reader-friendly
and interesting, as opposed to long passages of introspection where the
character is doing nothing but thinking.

Aren’t convinced yet you should avoid starting your book with
backstory? An editor once told me if she wasn’t engaged in the story by page
five, she wouldn’t read any further before rejecting a manuscript. Think
that’s harsh? She’s being charitable. Most editors make that decision by
page three. Some new writers try the trick of reversing a page in their
manuscript when they send it in. Then when they get it back rejected
and the page is still reversed, they regard this as proof the editor
never actually read their story. Well . . . yes, they did. They read as
much as they needed to in order to know they weren’t interested in reading
any more.

You have three pages to interest the editor/reader in your novel. Don’t
waste them on backstory. Throw the reader right into the action. A
hundred years ago writers had the luxury of beginning a story with “Once
upon a time . . .” Today’s readers are too impatient. Toss them right
into the garden with a sobbing Cinderella and her fairy godmother and
explain later. Your readers will thank you for it.


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